A meditation on my fierce love of picture books…

 

Recently, I encountered the idea that most books (and movies) follow the same basic plot structure.  I was shocked, floored, bewildered by this fact. AND IT IS A FACT.  I’ve accepted it now.  I’m not sure how I never realized it before.   I felt kind of stupid when I finally understood…

But as I turned the baffling idea over in my mind, attempted to think of accessible titles that defied the formula, I realized that almost every good example I could think of was a picture book.  I mentioned this to a friend, and she replied, “Oh, well, sure… picture books are different. They don’t count!”

Hmm…   Picture books don’t count?  Why not?

I’ve been mulling over this ever since, and in a sense my friend was right—plot conventions don’t apply to a lot of picture books, because picture books are the one popular literary genre where words are allowed to do something besides tell a story in a linear fashion.  Picture books are the most wild, innovative, untethered, experimental literary genre I know.

The marriage of images and text is partly to blame for this, I think.  Something about the collaborative process too, perhaps—an artist and a writer challenging each other, with a common purpose but different modes. But I want to believe that the main reason picture books can be so different is that kids are so  different.

At the tender age when kids first encounter picture books they are open, accepting, free-thinking. A two year old doesn’t really expect anything when she picks up a book, and so a book for a two year old can be anything. Physical comedy.  Visual art.  A puzzle.  Books for kids can pop-up or scratch-and-sniff. They can be meta-fiction.  They can speak multiple languages or intertwine multiple distinct storylines.  There are almost no rules to picture books.  Kids scribble in them, build forts with them.  Picture books are experiential on every level you can imagine, and some you can’t.

They’re awesome.

For me, personally, the best thing about picture books is that they can play with language for its own sake.  Sprung from the need for a defined narrative arc, picture books can be poetry. They can simply express an experience, an emotion.  They can paint a portrait.  They can describe a place, a time of day, or a moment.  They can be playful or somber.  They can pair spare language with intense image, and pack that word with meaning the kid will carry with them for life.

Or they can not do that.  If kids don’t read them.  Which brings me to my soapbox…

We are pushing children to read chapter books too soon.   Maybe you’re not, but trust me, someone you know is.  I do countless school visits every year, and am horrified by the number of kids who tell me they have moved on to chapter books and don’t need pictures anymore (though they never seem to mind them when I pull out a picture books). I can’t count all the parents who beam and explain that little Emma is reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten.   That she doesn’t like baby books anymore.  She doesn’t need pictures.

Look, I write children’s novels.  I love children’s novels.  And I read at about a 34th grade level.  But I still read picture books to myself.  I still need pictures.

I think these parents don’t realize that the chapter books they’re pushing the kids to read  generally offer simpler sentence structure and easier vocabulary than the picture books they’ve “graduated” from.  Never mind the visual stimulation and emotional complexity of a book that doesn’t have to follow a simple adventure arc.

But for me, the saddest part is that in abandoning their picture books, these kids are missing out on sheer  play and poetry—two things they’ll have a harder and harder time finding in their lives as they get older.  As they move away from these wild forms, into (if we’re lucky) one of the many chapter book series on the shelf, they’ll learn to expect the same things from a book that everyone does. They’ll rely on story. They’ll come to expect archetypes, if not stereotypes.   Orphans will have their adventures and new kids will  find it hard to make friends, but then make friends…

But what about a book that dwells on what lies sleeping beneath the snow?  Or water singing blue?  What about the whimsy of rain making applesauce?  What about animals wearing clothing,   rag-doll/ broom -handle wedding processions, or the moon?

I have often thought to myself that there’s a big disconnect between childhood—when almost everything is a poem—to adulthood, when people claim to “not understand” poetry.    And considering all of this tonight, I feel almost certain that if people would keep reading their picture books forever, they’d enjoy poetry more.  It’s the primacy of story that makes it hard for us to remember that words can do other things too…

I love story. I need story.  I am addicted to story.  But sometimes, for that very reason— I need something else.  Not drama. Not story.  Just words—just words—like water. Or rain.  Or a kiss. Or sleep.

.

Hush…

27 Responses to “A meditation on my fierce love of picture books…”

  1. Mom Says:

    This is terrific, Laurel.
    You’re onto something very important here, and you’ve said it beautifully. I’m going to try to download it to take into my kids at school to see how they respond.
    (And I won’t tell anyone that I know you WERE taught about the old plot arc MANY times in school. You were just too busy reading chapter books under the desk or writing poetry to listen).

  2. laurel Says:

    Ha. Emma said the same thing.

    (I never said I wasn’t taught it. I said I didn’t learn it)

  3. Katherine Says:

    Love this, Laurel. It drives me batty that students in my own district are encouraged to move to chapter books at an early age. Long live the picture books! And I still read, on average, two a day to my fifth graders. And they love it. :)

  4. sarah Says:

    brava! well said indeed! <3

  5. Kate Messner Says:

    This is so, so perfect. Thank you. I need pictures, too.

  6. david e Says:

    while i agree that picture books should be a honeymoon celebration of word and image (or *implied* word and image, since there can be wonderful wordless books) the thing that helps me most when writing middle grade or YA is…

    i use picture book story structure as a way of creating an outline. it takes that clarity of simplicity to understand what my story is about.

    what is saddest to me is that what makes the depth and breadth of picture books so great diminishes as reading becomes more “serious.” it’s a little like the death of a thousand paper cuts. first we teach them to read, and it’s fun. then they read for fun. then we teach them to read for meaning and things get all serious. poetry, too. i kept running into teachers trying to kill the nonsense poetry from me (only to get the college and discover the dadaists) as if somehow there is nothing valid in the joy of words.

    so anyway, yeah, what you said.

  7. Michelle Cusolito Says:

    Well said! Thank you for this. I read hundreds upon hundreds of picture books every year in addition to the ones I read to my children. My son is in 4th grade and he picks up nearly every PB I check out of the library for myself and reads them. I always read them to my 4th graders and would continue to do so if I were still in the classroom.

  8. Matt Phelan Says:

    Exactly. There are so many incredible picture books for ALL ages.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    AMEN! I agree, I agree. My kids are two, seven, and eight and our house is filled with picture books. They are magical. My older kids can read chapter books and they will have years to do so, but why not encourage them to live where imagination is at its best? Art + playful text = Leaping. Love. More adults should revisit picture books, too.

  10. elizabeth dulemba Says:

    Wonderful sentiments and I totally agree! :) e

  11. Penny Klostermann Says:

    I don’t have any kids at home…well except 57 year old me! I check 20-30 picture books out a week. I read them all and keep some of them through 3 checkouts so that I can read them over and over. I am in love with picture books and feel everyone should experience them their whole life through. Thanks for this post. I bookmarked it and will read it over and over :-)

  12. Sheila Barry Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement that we are pushing children into chapter books too soon. It is such a shame, although I am heartened by the fact that more and more fantastic picture books are published all the time, and someone must be reading them to/with children.

  13. fragile tears Says:

    fragile tears…

    [...]Laurel Snyder » Blog Archive » A meditation on my fierce love of picture books…[...]…

  14. Jane Kohuth Says:

    Just, thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I share this far and wide.

  15. Sarah Lamstein Says:

    Hear, hear! Beautiful things often get left behind in the race to the “top.”

  16. Jennifer Estes Says:

    I want to hug this post! After I read it, I asked my 9 year old son if he still liked to read picture books. He asked me why I asked. I told him some adults think kids should be reading harder books at younger ages, and that picture books were just for babies. He looked horrified and said, “That’s stupid! Picture books are awesome!”

    Every parent and teacher should read this post! Thank you, Laurel!

  17. Patricia Moore Says:

    By encouraging children to leave picture books behind aren’t we limiting children’s creativity?

  18. Vicky Alvear Shecter Says:

    This is an amazing and powerful piece, Laurel. Off to look at some picture books that I’ve ignored for a long time!

  19. Douglas Florian Says:

    So nice to see Rain Makes Applesauce mentioned. It was an extraordinary Caldecott Honor book by my esteemed sweet teacher at QC Marvin Bileck.

  20. Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave Says:

    Wonderful, validating piece! It is always warming to remember that there are many of us who keep shelves of beautiful friends, always waiting to inspire, to comfort, to delight us. I recently found a pristine copy of “Rain Makes Applesauce” at a library book sale. When I gave it to my step-daughter for her young sons, I was especially thrilled to see the joy in her eyes as she instantly remembered upteem readings.

  21. How to build a reader, part 2 | A Mom's World Says:

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  22. Maria Says:

    Hear hear! My 3rd grade daughter spent a lot of her bedtime reading time last week re-enjoying Pickles to Pittsburgh and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, getting lost in all the humor and detail of the wonderful illustrations…..

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  24. Debbie @ A Library of our Own Says:

    What a fascinating blog post. I am one of those mothers, my son has been reading since he was three and a half. He has “graduated” to chapter books. Luckily a lot of chapter books still have pictures, though not as many. He likes the non-fiction ones, he likes the fact that there is a fuller story. I do not find this a problem. You must learn to read to get to the point where you can enjoy the classics, fantasy, modern fiction, where the words great the pictures for you. With that said, my son falls to sleep, almost every night, with a picture book on top of him. He still loves picture books as do I and his little sister. The pictures in pictures books have taken on a new life for him. He studies them now, before he will read, looking for clues, trying to find the story in the pictures. I by no means intend to stop encouraging my child along his path of reading but it’s not an all or nothing world. Picture books with their laugh out loud fun, great rhymes, silly words, enchanting worlds, long journeys, and beautiful pictures will be a part of his life for a long time to come. A picture book does not = less or lower. I know that I will be one sad mom when I finally by my last picture book. I love some of them more than my kids.

  25. Rachel Says:

    This is so completely beautiful and true. Can I repost on my blog sometime?

  26. laurel Says:

    Of course! (and thank you)

  27. Strega Nona, Old Befana, and me (somewhat middle-aged Befana) | Blog of Green Gables Says:

    [...] books, and Kerry spoke of an excellent post she’d read by mom-author-blogger Laurel Snyder, A Meditation on My Fierce Love of Picture Books. I went home and looked it up, and even though weeks have gone by, I’m still mulling what I [...]

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